HMS Cornwall Incident: A Cause for Concern
is an uncertain ally better than no ally at all?
By streiff Posted in War — Comments (42) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Last year British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster proffered a stinging critique of the US military in the journal Military Review.
There can be few acts more galling than a soldier from one country publicly assessing the performance of those from another. […]. Ultimately, the intent is to be helpful to an institution I greatly respect.
The capture of Marines and sailors from a boarding party of the HMS Cornwall presents an opportunity to return the favor and look at how an institution I greatly respect, the Royal Navy, has handled itself in this crisis.
Royal Navy commanders were in uproar yesterday after it was revealed that almost half of the Fleet's 44 warships are to be mothballed as part of a Ministry of Defence cost-cutting measure.
A senior officer, currently serving with the Fleet in Portsmouth, said: "What this means is that we are now no better than a coastal defence force or a fleet of dug-out canoes. The Dutch now have a better navy than us."
Not only will it rank behind Belgium in size it is poorly maintained and undermanned.
The Government has admitted that 13 unnamed warships are in a state of reduced readiness, putting them around 18 months away from active service.
More details are emerging of the near-squalor that soldiers are forced to tolerate in barracks when they return from six months of dangerous overseas operations.
Questions have also been raised about the poor pay for troops and equipment failures which continue to dog operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as they say it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
The incident with the HMS Cornwall calls into question whether there is very much fight left in the dog that is the Royal Navy and it points to the danger imposed upon US forces when working in concert with allied navies who will not act to defend themselves.
According the most comprehensive report to date this was a routine activity. A boarding party was dispatched from the HMS Cornwall when a dhow was observed acting suspiciously.
A boarding party of eight sailors and seven marines left the frigate HMS Cornwall in fast rigid inflatable boats - Ribs, as the navy calls them. The vessel they raced towards had been spotted unloading cars into two barges secured alongside.
As the search took place, four naval personnel were left to look after their boats and monitor the data link which kept it in contact with the frigate.
The remaining 11 boarded the merchant vessel at 7.39 local time. They carried SA80 rifles or pistols, and the Cornwall's Lynx helicopter hovered overhead.
Vice Admiral Charles Style, deputy chief of the defence staff, described the operation as "entirely routine business", conducted in an area where four other boardings had recently been completed without fuss. The boarding party finished inspecting the vessel, which was cleared to carry on its business, at 9.10am.
Then the situation began to unravel.
The 11 sailors and marines were leaving the vessel when "very heavily armed Iranian vessels" arrived. Adm Style said the Iranian crew initially appeared friendly.
However, with their two boats equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns a few feet away, the Iranians suddenly became aggressive. Four other Iranian craft quickly came on the scene. "They came out to swarm around our boats and shepherded them in," said a senior naval officer. He added: "The navy personnel were put in an almost impossible position."
The Iranian ambush, carried out with six boats capable of 40 knots, took place in three minutes.
While the article strives manfully to give the impression of inevitability a closer looks calls part of the story into question.
The interception took place in broad daylight on seas calm enough to allow the boarding party to travel some four miles in rigid inflatable boats. Visibility was good enough that the HMS Cornwall was able to visually observe the dhow off loading automobiles.
For the Iranian ships to have approached the dhow in three minutes they would have been less than 2.4 statute miles away when they began their movement assuming they were traveling at 40 knots. One would think that this type of behavior would have caused some consternation. There is no report of this being the case so we should assume the Iranian were much closer, probably half that distance. Regardless they would have been visible from the Cornwall visually and by radar from the time the dhow was intercepted and they would have been visible as they exited Iranian territorial waters, crossed into Iraqi territorial waters, and approached the intercepted ship.
This calls into question as to why the boarding party didn’t abandon the dhow when the Iranians began their move or why the HMS Cornwall didn’t take some kind of action to warn off the Iranians or warn the boarding party (more on this a bit later).
Complacency and nonchalance are plausible explanations. If so, this calls into question either the level of command competence on the Cornwall or the mindset of the British Navy in the Gulf.
HMS Cornwall could not come to their aid since the boarding took place in very shallow water. The frigate was more than four miles away at the time of the ambush, according to naval sources.
The HMS Cornwall only draws 24 feet of water and the average depth of the Gulf is 50 meters. True we don’t know the actual depth the Cornwall was operating in but the scale on available maps indicates the boarding took place about 6 miles off shore. It might be less that 24 feet deep but I would have to see the navigation charts.
Apparently, nothing was deemed amiss aboard the Cornwall as several Iranian surface combatants came alongside the Indian flagged dhow.
Communications between the naval boarding party and the Cornwall were lost at 9.10. The Lynx helicopter, which had left the scene, returned to locate the boarding team. The helicopter crew reported that the boarding party and their boats were being "escorted by Iranian Islamic Republican Guard Navy vessels towards the Shatt al-Arab waterway and were now inside Iranian territorial waters."
According to reports the Cornwall contacted the Defence Ministry for guidance (can’t find a link) and was told to stand down.
This brings us to what they could have done. Fighting comes to mind. Why didn’t they. British sailors and marines aren’t exactly world famous for running from a fight. The answer seems to be that they weren’t allowed to fight.
British military sources insisted yesterday that commanders engaged in patrolling the northern Gulf were "entirely satisfied" with their rules of engagement. "They had all the freedom they needed, all rights to engage in self-defence," said one senior military officer. The naval personnel had acted "in a professional way".
Former First Sea Lord Admiral Alan West said in an interview:
The rules are very much de-escalatory, because we don't want wars starting. The reason we are there is to be a force for good, to make the whole area safe, to look after the Iraqi big oil platforms and also to stop smuggling and terrorism there.
So we try to downplay things. Rather then roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were effectively able to be captured and taken away.
If we find this is going to be a standard practice we need to think very carefully about what rules of engagement we want and how we operate. One can't allow as a standard practice nations to capture a nation's servicemen. That is clearly wrong.
What is clearly wrong and needs careful thinking is sending young men into harms way and forbidding them to defend themselves.
West goes on to say:
But all they had were small arms, they don't have heavy weapons. So of course to actually start fighting patrol boats would not be a clever thing.
Well, is that completely true?
The Iranian vessels were light coastal patrol craft:
The two Iranian patrol ships that seized the Britons were equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, enough for a small sea battle. By contrast, the Britons go lightly armed on vessels they search in the Gulf. Each man is issued with a rifle or a pistol.
True enough. But from covered positions aboard the ship they had boarded they could have held off the Iranians until the guns, missiles, and helicopter from the Cornwall were in action. One can see a scenario where a curt refusal and a call for help would have ended the situation without bloodshed, or at least without a massacre. For instance, last year the Iranian military attempted to kidnap US soldiers on the Iranian border. It resulted in a brief firefight not an international crisis.
The difference in attitudes and battle focus is commented on:
A senior American commander in the Gulf has said his men would have fired on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard rather than let themselves be taken hostage.
In a dramatic illustration of the different postures adopted by British and US forces working together in Iraq, Lt-Cdr Erik Horner - who has been working alongside the task force to which the 15 captured Britons belonged - said he was "surprised" the British marines and sailors had not been more aggressive.
Asked by The Independent whether the men under his command would have fired on the Iranians, he said: "Agreed. Yes. I don't want to second-guess the British after the fact but our rules of engagement allow a little more latitude. Our boarding team's training is a little bit more towards self-preservation."
The executive officer - second-in-command on USS Underwood, the frigate working in the British-controlled task force with HMS Cornwall - said: " The unique US Navy rules of engagement say we not only have a right to self-defence but also an obligation to self-defence. They [the British] had every right in my mind and every justification to defend themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken. Our reaction was, 'Why didn't your guys defend themselves?'"
Even anti-war activist and author Gwynn Dyer damns this policy with a degree of praise:
It's a cultural thing, at bottom. Britain has a long history of fighting wars and taking casualties, but the combat doctrines are less hairy-chested. British rules of engagement "are very much de-escalatory, because we don't want wars starting," explained Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord. "Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back, and that, of course, is why our chaps were ... able to be captured and taken away."
That emollient British approach is probably why the Iranian Revolutionary Guard chose to grab British troops rather than Americans. It was obviously a snatch operation: the Iranians would not normally have half a dozen attack boats ready to go even if some "coalition" boat checking Iraq-bound ships for contraband did stray across the invisible dividing line into Iranian waters (which the British insist they didn't).
[…] Kidnapping American troops as hostages for an exchange could cause a war, so they decided to grab some Brits instead. And it will probably work, after a certain delay.
In this episode, the American reputation for belligerence served U.S. troops well, diverting Iranian attention to the British instead. In the larger scheme of things, it is a bit more problematic.
But the larger issue is the danger posed to American forces operating alongside a British Navy which has markedly different set of rules of engagement. Could the USS Underwood rely upon its partner, the HMS Cornwall, to help rescue a US boarding party that was under fire? We don’t know what the Blair government would allow but the initial signs aren’t good.
Under the Defence Ministry’s plan to move Britain to parity with Luxembourg as a naval power this would have been one of the HMS Cornwall’s last deployments:
The six warships to be mothballed are the Type 22 frigates Cumberland, Chatham, Cornwall and Campbeltown and two Type 42 destroyers Southampton and Exeter.
Maybe, if nothing else, the disgrace suffered by the Cornwall will give the British people the courage to demand a navy as courageous as the sailors who serve in it. If not, then the Cornwall’s fate will be an apt metaphor for the Royal Navy.